John VanHavel's uncle, Harry Lord, wrote about the Wabash accident several years after the event.
The Wreck on the Wabash
by Harry J. Lord
It happened in 1901 when I was a lad of 11 years. It was Thanksgiving Eve, when many travelers in holiday mood were on their way to homes of relatives and friends for the next day’s Thanksgiving festival.
Those were the horse and buggy days. For almost all those traveling considerable distances, train was the only means of transportation. There were no planes flying through the air and very very few automobiles. The night was still and clear and there was the crisp cold air of the late November evening. Such was the weather when probably the worst disaster in the history of the Wabash Railroad took place about three miles from our house.
At the time, father and I were at a Thanksgiving prayer service in our little country church a mile and a half from home. When returning home afterwards, we saw in the distance what appeared to be a long strung out brush fire on some farm, set by some farmer clearing off his field.
However, when we arrived at our place, mother met us at the door and excitedly broke the news to us that she had heard over the telephone that there had been a terrible wreck east of the Seneca railway station. (The Village of Seneca was about two miles south of us.)
Hurriedly, we got back into the buggy and drove to the scene of the catastrophe. We found that the two evening fast trains had met in a head-on collision on a straight track.
The engine of one train and the first of the two engines pulling the other train lay on their sides at about right angles to the track. All coaches of the west-bound train had been destroyed by fire. The timbers of the floors were still burning when we arrived. Fire had started in the east-bound train, but had been put out. The day coach of the train had been crushed into kindling wood, having been telescoped into about 12 feet of space. As we first came upon the accident, I saw this mass of rubble between two of the coaches and I asked father what it was, for it was smashed beyond recognition.
Scores of people perished in the train that burned. Many doors at the ends of some coaches could not be opened. The cars had been so jammed together that they afforded no exit and the only way out of the conflagration was through the windows. In the panic that followed, only a few escaped this way. Many were so pinned in the wreckage that they could not have escaped anyway.
One of the cars was full of Italian immigrants who had come to America to find a better life. One mother tossed her baby out the window to a by-stander. Those that brought the baby up named her “Wabash.” They were never able to trace her Italian ancestry.
One might wonder how a whole train could have burned. It should be remembered that this was before the days when all coaches were heated by steam. The source of heat then was by small stoves in the ends of the cars. In case of a wreck, they were a great fire hazard. Oil lamps may have added to the peril.
When we arrived, all of the injured had been removed. Some had been taken to nearby farm houses. Emergency trains, rushed to the scene, had taken away the rest. Stranded passengers who were physically able to continue their journey were cared for. Most of the dead had been removed. Some bodies more recently taken from the wreck of the east-bound train lay covered with blankets.
Workmen were still searching the wreckage. I heard one workman say to the by-standers, “If you aren’t here to help, please keep out of the way.” They were especially looking for one of the engineers who had not been accounted for. His body was found the next day under one of the locomotives.
One of the engineers, moments before the crash, had seen the oncoming train. Realizing what was to happen, he had pulled the emergency brake although it was too late to do much to slow the momentum of the train, then he had jumped, suffering only a broken leg.
No doubt you are asking how could such a tragedy have taken place on a straight stretch of track where one could see headlights of an approaching train many miles away on a clear night. Why wasn’t it seen in time to put on the brakes? Of course, the main question you would ask is, How did it happen at all?
The story is that these trains, if they were on time, were accustomed to passing at Sand Creek, the next station east of Seneca. The orders would be for one of them to wait on the siding there until the other had passed. (These were the days before there were double tracks on the Wabash Railroad.)
A new siding had been put in at Seneca where there never had been one before. It seems that for the first time, the order had been given for the eastbound train to side track at Seneca.
In those days the train dispatcher would telegraph some local station agent up the line who would write out the order for the train crew. On this occasion, a mistake was made by the train crew. Giving the written order a casual glance, perhaps they thought they were to side-track at Sand Creek as usual, so they went by the Seneca station without stopping and collided with the westbound train.
Thus, it was a sad Thanksgiving time in many homes that had looked forward to happy reunions. Had orders been read more carefully, it would have been a different story.
Immediately after the wreck, the name of the station at Seneca was changed to “Ennis.” It was felt that there was something of a similarity between the names “Seneca” and Sand Creek” that had accounted for the terrible mistake. Many years later, after double tracks eliminated the danger of collisions, the name of the station was changed back to Seneca.